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Jewish World Review
August 24, 2006
/ 30 Menachem-Av 5766
What Israeli security could teach us
The safest airline in the world, it is widely agreed, is El Al, Israel's
national carrier. The safest airport is Ben Gurion International, in Tel Aviv.
No El Al plane has been attacked by terrorists in more than three decades, and
no flight leaving Ben Gurion has ever been hijacked. So when US aviation
intensified its focus on security after 9/11, it seemed a good bet that the
experience of travelers in American airports would increasingly come to resemble
that of travelers flying out of Tel Aviv.
But in telling ways, the two experiences remain notably different. For example,
passengers in the United States are required to take off their shoes for X-ray
screening, while passengers at Ben Gurion are spared that indignity. On the
other hand, major American airports generally offer the convenience of curbside
check-in, while in Israel baggage and traveler stay together until the security
check is completed. Screeners at American airports don't usually engage in
conversation with passengers, unless you count as conversation their endlessly
repeated instructions about emptying pockets and taking laptops out of
briefcases. At Ben Gurion, security officials make a point of engaging in
dialogue with almost everyone who's catching a plane.
There is a reason for these differences. Nearly five years after Sept. 11, 2001,
US airport security remains obstinately focused on intercepting bad things
guns, knives, explosives. It is a reactive policy, aimed at preventing the last
terrorist plot from being repeated. The 9/11 hijackers used box cutters as
weapons, so sharp metal objects were barred from carry-on luggage. Would-be
suicide terrorist Richard Reid tried to ignite a bomb in his shoe, so now
everyone's footwear is screened for tampering. Earlier this month British
authorities foiled a plan to blow up airliners with liquid explosives; as a
result, toothpaste, eye drops, and cologne have become air-travel contraband.
Of course the Israelis check for bombs and weapons too, but always with the
understanding that things don't hijack planes, terrorists do and that the
best way to detect terrorists is to focus on intercepting not bad things, but
bad people. To a much greater degree than in the United States, security at El
Al and Ben Gurion depends on intelligence and intuition what Rafi Ron, the
former director of security at Ben Gurion, calls the "human factor" that
technology alone can never replace.
Israeli airport security, much of it invisible to the untrained eye, begins
before passengers even enter the terminal. Officials constantly monitor
behavior, alert to clues that may hint at danger: bulky clothing, say, or a
nervous manner. Profilers yes, that's what they're called make a point of
interviewing travelers, sometimes at length. They probe, as one profiling
supervisor recently explained to CBS, for "anything out of the ordinary,
anything that does not fit." Their questions can seem odd or intrusive,
especially if your only previous experience with an airport interrogation was
being asked whether you packed your bags yourself.
Unlike in US airports, where passengers go through security after checking in
for their flights and submitting their luggage, security at Ben Gurion comes
first. Only when the profiler is satisfied that a passenger poses no risk is he
or she allowed to proceed to the check-in counter. By that point, there is no
need to make him remove his shoes, or to confiscate his bottle of water.
Gradually, airport security in the United States is inching its way toward
screening people, rather than just their belongings. At a handful of airports,
security officers are now being trained to notice facial expressions, body
language, and speech patterns, which can hint at a traveler's hostile intent or
fear of being caught.
But because federal policy still bans ethnic or religious profiling, US
passengers continue to be singled out for special scrutiny mostly on a random
basis. Countless hours have been spent patting down elderly women in
wheelchairs, toddlers with pacifiers, even former US vice presidents time
that could have been used instead to concentrate on passengers with a greater
likelihood of being terrorists.
No sensible person imagines that ethnic or religious profiling alone can stop
every terrorist plot. But it is illogical and potentially suicidal not to take
account of the fact that so far every suicide-terrorist plotting to take down an
American plane has been a radical Muslim man. It is not racism or bigotry to
argue that the prevention of Islamist terrorism necessitates a heightened focus
on Muslim travelers, just as it is not racism or bigotry when police trying to
prevent a Mafia killing pay closer attention to Italians.
Of course most Muslims are not violent jihadis, but all violent jihadis are
Muslim. "This nation," President Bush has said, "is at war with Islamic
fascists." How much longer will we tolerate an aviation security system that
pretends, for reasons of political correctness, not to know that?
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